AoA: The Widow

October 15, 2017:

On a mission to find a young man hiding in the Badlands formerly known as Canada, Danielle Moonstar finds that she is not the only person out on the hunt… and Natalia Romanova and James Barnes find that what they thought was lost, is not so lost at all.

The Badlands

Formerly Canada, now super bad.


NPCs: None.


Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

This world is in schism.

One land sees mutants as something close to gods, while humans are looked upon as subpar beings.

In the other land, mutants, while perhaps not as reviled, are still seen as second class citizens. It's humans that typically hold the higher status within.

Between these two starkly delineated countries another world can be found. Pockets of humanity, both mutant and human, are struggling to survive. Food, water, shelter, all of that is in short supply and let's not forget safety. That's never a guarantee.

Both worlds would likely let everyone believe that neither group holds sympathy for the other. Mutants hate humans and humans hate mutants. And while perhaps some of that may hold true the reality of the situation is far more gray; for both sides.

There will always be people who start out on one side and go to another. Defectors. People who's conscience has finally forced them to act against the depravity they've seen. Or the depravity that will soon occur at one of the secured slave encampments.

This is what has brought a young man by the name of Noah to the Badlands. An area that is both remote, civilized and uncivilized at the same time. It's where one can get lost in both the urban and forested wilderness of the country formally known as Canada.

Now this young man waits in a small town. A struggling boomtown, if you will, that's housed within the remnants of a metropolitan area. He's hidden himself away in the mass of unwashed bodies while he waits to be retrieved. While he's mainly stayed indoors since his arrival, currently, he's outside. It makes his neck itch, but his contact pinged that she's close and that's made him foolish. He stands near a broken down building. Yes, the contact told him to sit tight, stay hidden, but he's too antsy. That anxiety has caused him to move outside - to light a cigarette to calm himself.

A block away a woman is on the move. Danielle Moonstar. A displaced mutant that has no business going out on this mission, but that's never stopped her before. She does what's needed of her, and what was needed was for her to volunteer for this mission. It was easy enough for her to do, easy enough for her to see, as every other person who spoke up for this assignment soon acquired a shadow above their head. An omen of bad tidings. That death was around the corner for them. Upon seeing that, Dani couldn't help but step in. Her life, her soul, she knew, was already spoken for and so, here she is.

She's currently dressed in black and with a small arsenal strapped to her body. A sheathed knife, a quiver, a bow and even a handgun. Her soul may be spoke for, but that doesn't mean the Cheyenne is stupid. She's not. As such, she has come prepared for worst case scenario.

But, what she may not have accounted for, or prepared for, is how others might react to her. Or the degree of trouble she might find.

The world is in schism —

— but Natalia Romanova has found resolution.

Twenty years ago, the Black Widow lost her web. Her masters. Her keepers. Her sisters. Her Red Room. Her home she both reverred and hated, but it was hers — her place in the world, a belonging for broken things like her — predators, monsters, with no place in the world among their prey.

Twenty years ago, it fell down on her. She boiled and burned away in its fire, but she survived it, as the widow is promised to survive all things. She healed clean, because her body is not permitted to carry trace evidence of life, memory, being — she is not allowed scars to bear that she fought, she died, she screamed, she cried.

Twenty years ago, Natalia — after a long life of emptiness, of vacancy, of the cold winter that froze her heart — finally felt.

Soon thereafter, the Soviet Union fell, and the masterless spider was left nearly entirely alone.

Spiders survive alone because they cannot feel.

Natalia has found survival among other ways.

The rough, industrial smells of burning coal water through every unpaved street and alley of this ramshackle town, surviving under thick, bruise-heavy skies. Those who pass Dani barely merit her with the sort of glances people gave another twenty years ago; these ones are cursory and weighing, like scavengers scenting something new, and whether it's worth keeping an eye on — though something about her bearing keeps her from being accosted. Everyone shares tired, weathered eyes — some too tired to even contemplate man's basic greed.

It takes some searching, but eventually Moonstar finds her mark —

Ankle-deep in mud, waded into the darkness between two buildings, Noah still waits for her. His back is turned to her, shouldered up against one wall, head slightly bowed. At first glance, he simply looks like a man either taking privacy to relieve himself, or simply has escaped the noise of the street to take some moments for himself. Or, perhaps, someone hiding.

It will only take a few steps for her to take in, with her tracker's eye: the slack cast of one of his hands. The nearly-invisible fleck of blood patterned along the wall. And ultimately: the hole in through his ear that has already killed him. Dead man standing.

Two blocks away and thirty feet up, low and flat along a rooftop, the spider waits behind her suppressed rifle. One blue eye tracks through the lens —

— and the next shot will come suddenly, aimed at Dani Moonstar. It targets the leg, missing the vital femoral artery, but enough to make sure /she cannot run away./ It is time for a hunt.

The eyes that look at her don't recognize her for what she is; a monster. A Dark Rider, one of the elite of Apocalypse. A giver of pain, of torment and (eventually) death. It doesn't matter that this particular Moonstar, currently walking down the street, is someone completely different.

Nor does it make any difference that the real Dark Rider from this realm is quite dead.

Either way, the people here can thank their continued existence to the fact that, for now, neither super power cares that they're struggling to survive here. Perhaps one day they will, but for now, they don't. As such this town continues to live and 'prosper'.

Those weighted stares are felt by Danielle Moonstar and mostly ignored. If a person stares too long, they'll find them a recipient of Dani's own stare. It's a hard and sharp look; something that says 'don't even' but also 'back off', and thankfully it works.

It's only as she draws closer to the supposed meeting place, the hidey-hole Noah was using, that Moonstar's pace slows a touch. Her gaze automatically scans the area around her - assessing those people seen and those not. Searching for the easily identifiable spots that might hold trouble and the hidden ones that definitely do. It's that shrewd look of hers that allows Moonstar to find her quarry within the press of buildings.

Seeing Noah there, Moonstar takes one step inward, "What the hell did -" She begins, her words quite and sharp, frustration clearly heard in those four words of hers. However, before she can finish that thought of hers, her eyes track to his limp hands, her nose catches the copper tang of blood and she catches the vague glisten of blood upon the wall.

This man is beyond her help. His soul has been sundered from his body and there's nothing more she can do. Well, beyond offer a silent prayer to the skies above.

"Shit." Comes the muttered expletive and while another might stand and stare stupidly for several seconds, Danielle doesn't. The death shrouds from earlier are too fresh in her mind and because of that, Dani expects trouble, and so, she begins to turn. Her intention was to melt back into the flow of traffic, hide within the press of bodies and circle back around - so she could get the hell out of dodge. Now, before she can even take a step away from the dead man standing, a bullet rips unerringly into her thigh.

The wound it causes pulls forth both a shout of surprise and pain, but mostly pain. The step she was about to take, to bring herself out of the alleyway, is lost and with a second sound of pain, Dani crashes down to the mud covered cement of the ground. There's a split-second where Dani thinks 'what the hell' before training and self-preservation kicks in. With a grunt of effort the woman throws herself deeper within the alleyway. That movement brings her flush up against a wall, something she can brace herself against, even as one of her hands goes to the wound. "Dammit."

The bleeding needs to be stopped, but she also needs to move. Precious seconds will be used to bind the wound, the bottom of the shirt she's wearing being sacrificed to that task. Then with another grunt, Dani digs her hand into the crumbling wall against her back and pulls herself upward. She may not be able to run, but that doesn't mean she can't stagger away - specifically to the opposite end now, to the next street over.

Before she begins her retreat, however, Dani takes a moment to push the body of Noah to the ground - so the body lays across the alleyway. Not the best of traps, but if it slows whomever shot her down a few seconds, Dani will take it. Then the Cheyenne turns around and lurches away, the mud sucking at her boots.

It'll only take a dozen steps to bring her out of this alleyway and onto the next street over, but already, the Cheyenne feels the press of time working hard against her.

Distant and above, the rifle scope tracks the way the Dark Rider goes down with the shot.

Behind the lens, Natalia slivers her watchful eye. She expects more a display of Danielle Moonstar, whom that face definitely belongs to —

One of /them/, one of the most famous, slavish followers of the one who took everything from her. Took away the life Natalia Romanova did not realize she had until it was taken away.

Her keepers. Her managers. Her sisters. And him — the one she lost long ago to his own winter. Not even the cold could keep him safe from what pulled apart her country.

A single widow with nothing left but her loneliness, her fury, and her vengeance.

When Dani pushes herself flush to that building wall, it fortunately pulls her out of Natalia's eyeline. The action pauses her finger against the rifle trigger, tracing its oil-smudged metal in a moment of indecision. Not that it matters too much; she wants this kill to be personal.

Not so often she picks up a Dark Rider, alone, unguarded, and here for the taking. The Black Widow will go south, holding her head.

Abandoning her sniper's position, and leaving behind her rifle for now, Natalia shoulders on her pack and disappears off the rooftop.

As she bleeds, as she fights the mud — thick and sucking after the recent acid rain — the alley that meets Dani Moonstar is thankfully empty. It is dark and dirty and full of refuse, and the greatest worry at this moment is one of infection — keeping the filth of these last dregs of humanity away from her open wound.

Nothing meets Dani as she moves through the alley: the sniper makes no further shots.

Twenty years ago, Natalia would have sought this kill in other ways. Wearing different faces, fake smiles, imitated laughs, and with the imtimacy of trust and companionship. There would be duplicity inside this hunt. There would be lies at all sides.

Now there is nothing left but the honest truth of the sound of squelching mud at Dani's back, and a voice: "Dark Rider." A woman stands on the body, sinking it deeper into the mud, to save her boots. She is thin and tall, her face soft like it's barely shed its youth, with piercing blue eyes, and red hair tied purposefully back, tucked into the folds of her tactical scarf. She wears the heavy layers of a migrant, battered with use, decades to those clothes.

And even older is the fury that burns from her stare.

She moves, and it's unnatural — nothing human about it — lunching forward and glancing off one wall, and ricochetting off another, stepping effortlessly from each other to avoid the deep mud. A blade shines within her hand, and she arrows down on Dani, intent to put its edge straight into her heart.

Nothing less than the apocalypse to make Natalia Romanova honest.

Natalia Alianovna Romanova, or what remains of her, lunges forward, leaping with adroit grace from wall to wall to launch high into the air. She plunges down like an arrow from Dani Moonstar's own bow, knife first.

Moments before she would make contact, a blur interposes in her path. A metallic ring echoes through the air as the blade meets — something, something swung up so fast that it's impossible to register what it is up until it's stopping her weapon dead. Not deflecting it, not parrying it off, but just — flat-out stopping it cold, all its kinetic momentum killed.

It's a shield.

And in the moment before it pistons forward, trying to slam into Natalia and send her right back where she came, she would register the faded colors of the familiar concentric circles: red, white, blue.

"I assume you're the otherworlder," the man standing squared before Moonstar says, shooting a glance over his shoulder at her. He is both familiar and not familiar, his features the same and his comportment wholly different. She met him once before in her own true world, but back there he did not wear the shield. "Cause if you're not, I think I'm about to have a really bad day."

It is plain Bucky Barnes has only just arrived on the scene — no doubt in pursuit of Noah himself — and did not have enough time to observe the conflict before leaping in. He certainly has not recognized Natalia yet, and the lifted shield makes it impossible for her to see his face… for the time being. The rest of him that is visible is nondescript, typical combat attire, with the shield the only identifying factor. This is not a time for the wearing of the outfit — not up until there is a full team to be led.

Dark Rider.

Those two words bring Dani back around to face the dank interior of the alleyway. "That's the second time I've been called that." States the dark-haired woman, even as her dark brown eyes find their way to the Black Widow's form. It's not hard to locate her, not with the red head standing atop Noah's prone body. It's likewise not hard for the Cheyenne's dark brown eyes to meet the blue ones, either. Nor is it difficult for the mutant to see the fury that fills the other woman's gaze. "Listen." Moonstar states harshly, "I'm not whoever you think I -" That sentence doesn't quite finish, or really have a chance to finish, not when the attack commences. That unnatural grace is seen as is the knife angling for her heart, and it causes the black-haired woman's mouth to thin to a tight line.

Dani now shifts her weight and begins to bring both her hands upward, intending to use the other woman's momentum against her. But, before Dani can even commit to a potential block of the knife, or a controlled fall, or the subsequent flip that would have followed all of that, something intervenes.

Or someone.

The clang of knife upon shield is heard and the man that wields it is seen. The surprise appearance of someone in front of her is enough to cause the Cheyenne to instinctively reach for her weaponry - though, not the physical kind. Not knife, or handgun, or even bow and arrow. Instead, Moonstar pulls from the psychic plane and the beginnings of a psionic arrow, or in this case impromptu shiv, takes form within Dani's dominant hand. That magenta energy brightens the darkness within the alleyway, twisting the shadows around the trio.

Thankfully, before Moonstar stabs outward, to the Soldier's back, or his side, recognition of what he's doing hits home.

"Dammit, does everyone pop up like some crazy kind of whack-a-mole game here?" And then, "Yes, apparently I'm the 'otherworlder'." She agrees, her tone still sharp, and while there is a degree of familiarity to the Winter Soldier's features, for now it's not remarked upon. Not when there's still a half-crazed woman who wants to cut her heart out.

As such, that shiv is soon joined by a second psychic construct. A metaphysical bow and arrow are now held by the Cheyenne, the arrow already primed for firing, "Give me an opening and this should knock her out."

The Black Widow cuts through the air. Cuts through every last one of Dani Moonstar's words.

It's not that she doesn't hear them; she just doesn't care.

She arrows to meet the other woman, blade drawn, eyes glacial, until —

— a shield cuts between them, arresting the woman's leap, and stopping her knife in a harmless drag down its face. The vibranium is barely scratched.

Momentum stopped, and readjusting herself in quiet surprise, Natalia's unnatural grace is enough to twist her back and plant her feet, and she pushes off the same shield, cutting through the air and making space.

In a single instant, she is back to where she started, landing to one knee in the deep mud, one hand on Noah's corpse to prep its weight as a makeshift shield, and the other switching out her knife for a small sidearm, pointed forward.

Two targets now. And a very familiar shield between them, emblazoned with the colours and worthless star of a country long fallen. Now in the side of the slavers and the monsters.

Behind the barrel of her gun, Natalia's blue eyes hood with sarcasm. "Little late for the American way, don't you think?"

Lucky for James Barnes indeed that Dani looks before she shivs. Probably her first hint the man intervening isn't hostile is his back turned towards her; probably the second is that he's guarding her, defending her with — something. Something held in both his hands, which proves not to be a conventional weapon, but a shield.

Not just any shield, though.

The erstwhile Winter Soldier looks over his shoulder at Moonstar, bearing Captain America's shield. What a crazy world this is. "We have a habit of jumping out from hiding, sure," he says dryly, to her exasperation. "It's deadly just wandering around out in the open, after all." He braces with a grunt as Natalia recovers and backflips clean off his shield. "You better get used to a cold reception, otherworlder, because who you were here wasn't pretty — "

No time for small talk now, though. Moonstar, now armed with some sort of psychic bow, promises to knock her out cold should he provide her an opening. "Sounds good to me," he says, almost breezy, before he straightens up and starts to lower the shield to shift to a more aggressive stance, clamping it onto his metal arm as his right hand draws a sidearm.

Little late for the American way, don't you think? their aggressor asks.

"It's never too late for that, sweetheart," he answers, finally looking at the enemy over his shield —

— and stopping dead.

"Don't fire," he whispers to Dani, his features gone pale. "Don't fire!"

The shield lowers even farther, and he starts to walk towards the assassin. His face is as bared as hers.

"Natalia?" he asks, and his voice shudders with disbelief. "Vy ne umerli?"

That familiar shield is likewise seen by Dani's sharp gaze. It too could be remarked upon, but for now, it isn't. It's definitely not the right time. Maybe afterwards, when the dust has settled and the air cleared, Dani will ask where the original owner is, but for now -

"Yes, that's coming through loud and clear." States the black haired woman, when the Winter Soldier drops that clue about her counterpart in this world.

And then, just like that, everyone is moving.

The red head backs away, offers that rejoinder of hers, and then Bucky states his own in return. Dani, for her part, doesn't add anything to the conversation at hand, instead she's focuses on shifting slightly to the right. A potentially dangerous move with that gun pointed in their direction, but it can't be helped. Not when the majority of her powers rely upon some type of line of sight situation.

In fact, as soon as the Cheyenne's gaze finds its way back to the red head, the black-haired woman readies her strike. Only to be told to stop. To not fire. Those whispered words from the Soldier's are heard and it's enough to cause Moonstar to cut her gaze away from Natasha Romanova and back to the man. "What? Give a good reason why I shouldn't -"

And there he goes. Walking towards the assassin. "Are you serious." Comes the mutter from the woman, really a growl, as she watches the man move away from her.

Fine, he can make his way further into the alleyway, but that won't stop Moonstar from keeping the psychic bow and arrow trained upon the woman. Or the back of the Winter Soldier now.

That shield keeps the barrel of her gun off the Dark Rider, though that does not deter Natalia long.

This is what she gets for toying. She should have assured the kill sooner. It will not be taken from her. She will not abide one of /them/ the life they've taken from others. If she has to die today to ensure it —

Natasha's blue eyes map the alleyway, the shield, the faceless man who provides protection for the Moonstar monster, calculating a silent calculus of what she should do. It may be no more than getting herself between them. She ewill only need a second.

Familiar as the shield is, for now, the woman does not fire, well-aware doing so will be a waste of bullets. She holds her ground defensively, coiled there, thinking of little save for the next moment —

— until the shield lowers, and her entire world comes crashing down.

Seeing that man's face guts her out. Her blue eyes widen, and her pale skin goes bloodless, and for the first time in decades, her pointed gun begins to shake.

The Winter Soldier has seen Natalia Romanova wear many faces for many different occasions, most of them her little lies, but absolutely none of them this broken look of devastation, a woman torturing herself with a single moment of hope after two decades of death and emptiness.

Hearing her own name spoken shines her eyes. She looks up, not convinced this is real, not convinced it is him. He's dead. He's been dead for so long.

"Yasha?" she chokes out, and her shaking gun lowers.

"I'm sorry," James says to Moonstar, and walks towards Natalia Romanova.

Natalia, who recognizes him too. Who calls him by the name he was given back then, decades and lifetimes ago. He has not been called Yasha in over twenty years.

Natalia, who he doesn't know anymore, because it's been twenty-two years, and he can't be sure what side she's on now.

Natalia, who he has never seen wear such brutal honesty on her features, nor so much emotion.

Natalia, who he hopes he will not have to fight — or kill —

"Yes," he says. His hands itch to touch her. To push back the cloth swathing her head to see her red hair. "I looked for you, Natalia. I looked for you for years."

He stops, still a safe distance away. James is still keeping himself between Moonstar and Natalia. It is impossible to say which woman he is trying to protect. Maybe both. He cuts a glance back at Dani, then looks to Natalia. "We need to talk — "

He's sorry. That earns the vaguest of head shakes from the dark-haired woman, but largely, Dani's attention stays upon the other woman and this ever evolving situation within the alleyway.

It's apparent to Danielle Moonstar the two know each other. The Cheyenne can see the recognition that reflects palely upon the Soldier and the Widow's features. Nor can she miss the names each know one another by. And while Natalia lowers her own (shaking) gun, the same can't be said for Dani. That bow and arrow of hers stays up, the glowing arrow pointed unerringly down the length of the alley.

Truly, she has no idea what's really going on here, beyond what she's seen in these last few seconds, and it's not enough for Dani to throw caution to the wind. Not when the slowly seeping wound upon her thigh continues to radiate a not-so-gentle reminder about those that let their guard down.

So, while the Winter Soldier keeps himself interposed between the two women, that doesn't seem to stop Dani from edging just enough to keep the Black Widow in her line of sight. And now Dani waits; she waits to see what the Widow's next steps are.

In that moment, it would be a clear shot for Danielle Moonstar.

That redheaded woman who, moments ago, existed only to see her dead — is no longer even turning an eye in the woman's direction. She may as well not exist in this moment, she and the rest of this broken, ruined world, as Natalia Romanova stares the ghost of the only man she ever loved.

No longer can the Widow keep anything from her face; no longer is she the person whose life was made serving the lies of her masters. No longer does she live in a world where lies keep her alive, or even matter.

Natalia's quiet, devastated expression is truth.

Yes, says the Winter Soldier, and the gun falls from her trembling hand, lost to the mud. He looked for her. He /looked/ for her. She looks up at him, and for the first time he's ever known her, Romanova's face wears tears.

"Ya zhdal tebya," she whispers back.

He takes his eyes off her, then, looking back for — Natalia realizes, and feels her blood chill in her veins. She had forgotten. She's not supposed to forget these things. The Dark Rider. He protects her. It means he's one of them. It means the Winter Soldier defends their leagues.

Her insides twist sick. Worse than death, he is alive, and fighting for them. Not him. Anything but him. She vowed this world would never break her again, and no no no —

When James looks back, the Black Widow strikes. She's murderously fast and suddenly there, hurt and betrayal and /terror/ bright on her face, closing distance to vault off that shield and try to snap a foot straight into his face. The strike seeks to power him backward, back to the Dark Rider —

— for Natalia to catch a wall off both feet, recoil, and attempt to flee out of the alley. She needs to run.

The apocalypse hardened James Barnes. He thought the Second World War was the worst thing that could happen — and then, there was the Winter Soldier. He thought the Winter Soldier was the worst that could happen — and then, there was Apocalypse. He thought twenty years traveling countless irradiated, desolate wastelands, looking for the only woman he ever loved, was the worst thing that could happen.

He stands corrected. The worst thing that could happen is for him to get Natalia back, and not know who or what she has become. The worst thing is the simultaneous leap of hope and fear that chokes him. The worst thing is to hear that she waited for him, because that means he failed.

He did not find her where she waited. He left her waiting. Now she is here, dropping her gun, dropping tears — both things he has never seen from her.

"Pozhaluysta, prostite menya," he begs, before he remembers —

He looks back at Moonstar, trying to figure out how to resolve this situation in the midst of the emotional whirlwind ripping through him. It's a mistake. A mistake he would never have made before.

Natalia capitalizes instantly. Still shocked, he's a moment too slow to get the shield up, only managing to lift it enough that it gives her the foothold to kick him right in the face. The shiny new Captain America is left in the very dignified position of being sent skidding straight on his ass, staring as the only woman he ever loved tries to run right the hell back out of his life.

Hell no. He looked for twenty-two years. He's not quitting now.

"Disregard my last!" he sputters, before realizing Moonstar probably isn't really up on military jargon. "If you have a stun arrow or whatever then fire away!"

While Moonstar isn't necessarily close enough to read every nuance upon the Widow's expression, she's still close enough to see a portion of that devastation and pain. Seeing those emotions is enough to pull forth something akin to sympathy from Moonstar. It causes a corner of Danielle Moonstar's mouth to twitch downward - subconsciously understanding that int his /particular/ situation something just shifted dramatically for the Black Widow. Likewise the Winter Soldier.

That sympathy, however, doesn't last long. Not when Dani sees the moment the Widow's emotions shift from shock to betrayal and then to something worse.

"Watch out!" Calls out the Cheyenne, her words sharp and loud in the confines of the alleyway. Her warning, however, comes too late. Well, too late for the Winter Soldier, but perhaps not the Cheyenne.

His call to disregard that lsat order of his pulls forth a clipped retort from Moonstar. "Yeah, I got this." She snaps, her bow already moving to follow the fleeing Natalia.

It only takes a second, perhaps two, for her to target the woman's back. Then, with the shot found, Dani looses the arrow from the confines of her bow. There is no *twhip* or *twang* from the psychic constructs, instead the arrow is released silently and hurtles through the air equally quiet. Perhaps the only warning that might be found is the illumination the psychic projectile gives off as it draws closer to its quarry -

And while others might leave it with that one arrow, Dani doesn't. She isn't one to leave all her eggs in one basket and so, a second arrow is formed. Then a third. With each additional arrow, Dani shifts her aim to stagger the shots - one ahead of another and then another; trying to compensate for the Widow's sprint and any potential evasive maneuvers.

Natalia does not even spare the moment of a last glance back.

Later she will think. Later she will rage, and scream, and cry. Later she will decide what she will do with the last thread of her ruined life, finally robbed of the last grief she permitted herself. Later she will decide if it's worth finally putting the barrel of her gun in her mouth, or making herself be the weapon they made her, and suicide on one last mission taking this world down.

For now, she cannot hold. Her mind cannot take it, and her heart —

Him. He is alive, and with them. Natalia flees the alley like the coward she is, putting her back on all this for good, and ensure the Winter Soldier never sees her again. She flees before him and the Dark Rider can take her; she flees before she finally loses her mind.

Out into the main street, the Widow seems prepared to lose herself among the many persons walking the streets of the boomtown, people who don't realize the fight happening under their noses. That is her intent —

— until the arrow. Natalia cannot hear its nock, its flight, but senses reflexively the displacement in the air. The woman whirls mid-flight, and that dexterity comes back into play: her spine twists in a way it shouldn't, and she avoids it. But Dani knows better.

She fires more. Natalia avoids the second, but the third nocks into her dodge, and she can only twist to take it non-lethally. This would work —

— if they were merely arrows.

The psychic construct hits into her side, and the woman widens her eyes, unable to touch it to break it, and then that no longer matters. She turns again, racing again for escape because now she knows they've made pursuit, the Dark Rider and /HIM/, but —

Natalia looks back at the busy street, and every person — disappears.

No one left but her. Natalia Romanova, the last Widow, and the last on this world. She turns desperate circles, not understanding, until it makes sense — this is how it /is/. This is how she is.

Her world changes, and it stacks with corpses, her sisters on fire, her country a coffin, and the Winter Soldier bleeding the red that once meant so much to her. Dead too.

"Nyet," pleads Natalia. It turns heads, people giving the drifter woman strange looks.

"Nyet, nyet," she repeats, until her voice cracks, and more tears track down her cheeks. Not alone. Not her. Her blue eyes gaze every way, vacant and mad, seeing things no one can, and people move from her, giving the woman her berth.

"Ne ostavlyay menya," whispers Natalia, over and over, "prosti, prosti, ya zdes', ya zdes' —" And then she breaks, pulling the scarf from her red hair to claw her hands into it, turning lost circles. "Ne otpuskay menya. Vernis'. Vernis'. Prosti."

The world falls on her like it always will. Like her home did as a child. Like the Red Room did, in fire and screams. And Natalia, broken, insensate, falls as well, sobbing mindlessly, weeping every tear of her long, long life.

I got this, Moonstar snaps, and there is no reason for him to doubt that. No reason — except the strange way the arrow looks, when it flies. The strange way they just materialize, instead of being drawn.

What was that Rider known for, again?

Even then, James cannot even begin to anticipate the reaction that happens when Natalia is struck by those arrows. His eyes fly wide, and he staggers to his feet, lurching after her to catch her the moment she falls. He doesn't let her touch the mud; he falls to his knees in it himself first, to support her out of its filth.

That is how Dani Moonstar will find them, should she follow. A man broken in the mud, holding an even more broken woman in his arms, her head cradled against his chest. James Barnes, who was the Winter Soldier, who was Yasha Morozov, who became a man stupid enough to think — even for half a moment — he could be Captain America.

He's only letting Steve down too. The shield lays in the mud beside him.

"Ya zdes'," he tells her, every time she calls. "Ya zdes', Natashka."

He looks up, searching blindly for Moonstar. There is no blame in his gaze for her; James only blames himself.

He feels worse when he sees the wound on Moonstar's leg. His gaze tracks obviously to the injury, before dropping. "She is… she is not herself," he says, in the great understatement of the century, his gaze harrowed.

His eyes turn back to Natalia's suffering. "Is this permanent?"

The third arrow hits home - the last arrow ending this particular confrontation. At this point Danielle Moonstar should feel relief that the battle has ended and in their favor too, but all the woman feels is off. This world, this place, the terribleness of it all, makes it hard to feel any sense of triumph.

That feeling within her is enough to keep the woman still for a few seconds longer than what's needed. In fact, Danielle only starts to move when the Soldier finally manages to get back to his feet. Then, dutifully, the Cheyenne follows. Her gait is slower and she uses the nearby crumbling wall as an impromptu crutch, but eventually Dani catches up to the two.

Upon seeing the red-head cradled in the Soldier's arms Dani dismisses her psionic bow. Then Dani simply watches and listens to the Russian words that are spoken by both. The weeping that can be seen and heard from Natalia. The suffering behind it all.

His justification for the Widow's actions earn a slight look from Dani. Almost there's a snappy retort, but a second look at the red-head causes the words to die upon her tongue.

Instead, the Cheyenne addresses that second question of his, "No." She states, "It usually lasts a few hours, sometimes less, but she'll wake up."

Her gaze turns to the street so near, to the people upon said street, "I'd suggest we get out of here while we still can. If you need a lift somewhere I have a ride - just keep her from shooting me again and we'll call it equal."

Caught out of her fall, pulled into arms both flesh and metal, Natalia seems no longer to know where she is, when she is, and with whom.

In twenty-two years, she is unchanged, just as young, the serum pumped into her veins ensuring the Black Widow is a snapshot image of a life stolen from her, never allowed to wear the scars and wrinkles of well-lived men.

And this close, James Barnes can see how Natalia looks, this close, with her expression lost in mindless terror.

With no defense to that psychic arrow, and lost in the nightmare of her own making, the woman trembles and convulses uncontrollably, fighting to remain aware, her eyes turning every so way — the look in them full of despair, seeing not blood and gore, but emptiness. Forced unto a world with no one but herself, damned to finally feel it all, Natalia cries and mumbles pleas for bargain or escape.

Finally, at the last moment, something seems to cut through the nothing that keeps her, a voice in the dark, a body among the empty. Natalia turns her blue eyes, and suddenly finds Yasha Morozov again with them, her Winter Soldier, a rotting corpse who holds her and whispers promises that will never be true.

She was too late, and he looks a corpse to her, rotting away, decaying all the months — the years she waited.

There was something she always wanted to tell him.

"Yashenka," whispers Natalia, a single word that means everything.

She tries to touch him, but her hand falls limp before her fingers can find his face. She sags into dead weight.

Yashenka, she says. The name, the choice of how to call him, says more than five hundred explicit words ever could.

James finally leans down. "Idti spat', Natashenka," he says, and kisses her lightly just before unconsciousness finally takes her.

He is quiet afterwards. In silence, he absorbs Moonstar's answer about the duration of the arrow's effects. Mud-splattered, kneeling, back bent and head bowed, the shield beside him covered in filth and the woman in his arms broken, in these moments James Barnes is a perfect image of the state of this dimension. Devastated, bleak, ruinous. Ripped clean of all that ever felt right or good in Moonstar's own native world.

But then, his shoulders square, and he lifts his head. That, too, is emblematic of this reality.

"I hope you come from a world better than all this," he says to her, his voice weighed with exhaustion.

He finally picks the shield back up, slotting it on his back, and rises with Natalia in his arms. Typically he is assertive, the weight of the shield spurring some sense of obligation in him to take command, but here and now he just listens in shell-shocked dullness as Moonstar takes the lead.

"I'd appreciate that," he says. "I need to get her somewhere she can get help. And you need that injury seen to."

Yashenka. Natashenka.

Moonstar holds her silence as the woman and the man express what feelings they can for one another. Then one falls unconscious while the other grapples with all that has happened.

Then, like the heroes of the world, he rises back up.

That rhetorical question of her own world earns an answer, a simple thing, "It is."

Then Danielle Moonstar turns, leading the three of them out of the alleyway, out of the mud, away from this particular darkness and toward something hopefully better. Where wounds, at least the physical kind, can be taken care of and healed.

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